While John Paul II was giving hope to victims of communism, helping to win the Cold War, his American flock was way off message. In public the American bishops flogged their assumed moral acuity: intoning sonorous condemnations of Ronald Reagan's policies, loudly wondering if the pontiff knew what century it was, while in private they inducted and sheltered priests who preyed upon unsuspecting parishioners' teenaged boys. This book is an account of how it happened, and how the stinking mess was exposed.
George Weigel must certainly have written this book with a very personal anger at the malfeasant clerics who allowed all this to happen. He had written a well-received biography of the current pontiff, who is one of the 20th century's indisputable heroes. Now, the post-Cold War victory glow of the Catholic church has been dispelled by the reek of the American church's sexual scandals. Weigel manfully refrains from calling the crisis a media creation, though he does score the press on a few inaccuracies here and there. He sticks to just the facts: the opinions of even the most influential commentators like Andrew Sullivan and Richard John Neuhaus are excluded. He also does not waste a lot of space replying to charges that the church's rule of celibacy caused these predators to seduce their young male victims. Nor does he dwell on the capture of the American Catholic seminaries by the gay subculture-Michael Rose's Goodbye, Good Men is the place to get an full, infuriating examination of that sad state of affairs.
Weigel provides a chronological narrative of the crisis, and by the way an explanation of the functions of various papal officers and departments. He traces the origins of the crisis to what he calls the "Truce of 1968", in which American liberals in the church flouted elements of Vatican II, and were allowed to get away with it. These people then established a "culture of dissent" in the seminaries, turning away orthodox applicants, and spreading laxness and relativism and corruption throughout the American church.
The Vatican also bungled its end of responsibility. It did not keep the Pope and his aides adequately informed, nor did it conduct crucial press conferences very competently.
Weigel insists against some American reformers that this is a crisis of fidelity, not of management or oversight. He reiterates the theological inspiration for the offices of priests, bishops and cardinals, and proposes many sharp, specific reforms. He calls for nothing less than the spiritual cauterization of the American Church.
The Americans were not completely corrupt. The U. S. church had in fact discreetly resolved many of the abuses, under prompting by Rome, by the time the story broke. But what goes on in the dark comes out in the light.
The crisis continued to rage after this book's publication. Cardinal Bernard Law was forced to resign some months later, and reformers threatened the outright ban on homosexuals in the priesthood. One gets the sense that things will get uglier before they get prettier. But no one can doubt that thoroughgoing penance and reform must come before any renewal in the American Catholic church. Let the cleaning of the whited sepulchers begin.